Montreal-based GHGSat Inc., which aims to be a world leader in the detection of greenhouse gas emissions from space, is poised to significantly boost its data gathering capability with the launch of three additional satellites on Wednesday.
The trio of spacecraft – each the size of a microwave oven – lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 2:27 p.m. ET as part of a mass-deployment of 59 small satellites aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Their successful release was confirmed about 90 minutes later.
The launch doubles the growing retinue of orbiters that GHGSat can use to spot methane gas leaking into Earth’s atmosphere from industrial sites, farms and landfills. The company’s first three satellites were launched between 2016 and 2021. Six more are set to lift off in 2023.
Stéphane Germain, the company’s president, said the flurry of activity is meant to keep GHGSat ahead of other ventures, both public and commercial, that have yet to reach the launch pad.
“People are realizing that they have to have this data,” he said. “We need to get to a point where we can provide monthly coverage in key regions of the globe for all the customers who are interested in service there.”
He added that because the newly released satellites have more capacity to store and transmit data than their predecessors, the company’s data output would be more than doubled by this week’s launch.
GHGSat uses its own version of a technique called infrared spectroscopy to detect releases of methane with concentrations as low as 100 kilograms an hour over areas as small as 25 metres.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the most significant contributor to human-caused climate change after carbon dioxide. Last year, Canada was among more than 100 countries that joined a global pledge to lower methane emissions and has committed to a reduction of 75 percent by 2030 relative to 2012 levels.
Customers of GHGSat include producers that are trying to assess how much methane their activities create, governments monitoring the methane released within their borders and financial service companies looking for evidence of the environmental impact of their investments.
“These additional satellites will help us get a much better idea of how much methane is actually being emitted from global point sources, particularly oil and gas,” said Evan Sherwin, a postdoctoral researcher in energy resources engineering at Stanford University in California who led a controlled release of methane in 2021 that tested GHGSat’s ability to actively target and perceive emissions from locations of interest on the ground.
“One of the main lessons from recent aircraft-based methane surveys is that the more you measure, the more you see,” he said.
Climate scientists are also interested in what GHGSat is seeing. Earlier this week, the company announced it would be making its data available to researchers through a program run by the European Space Agency. And the company has been funded by the federal government to support the International Methane Emissions Observatory, which was established by the United Nations last fall ahead of climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Existing systems do not allow us to determine precisely enough where these emissions happen across the globe and in what volumes. Once better data is available, countries can take swift and well-targeted action,” the European Union’s Commissioner for Energy, Kadri Simson, said when the observatory was announced.
The company has also released data at lower resolution along with a global map that shows variations in methane from natural sources as the planet undergoes its seasonal cycle.
But the company’s value proposition lies with the high-resolution data that can focus on areas where there are multiple sources and multiple emitters. That often means oil and gas facilities, where stray emissions – once identified – can often be eliminated with technical improvements.
In that domain, the company’s satellites are “helping flag larger emissions rapidly in methane hot spots on the scale of hundreds of square kilometres,” Dr. Sherwin said. “To achieve the methane reductions we need, we will also need more sensitive technologies with smaller spatial coverage, either ground-based approaches, drones or low-flying aircraft.”
In Canada, the federal government is expected to release a strategy document this year that will provide details on how it aims to reduce and monitor methane emissions.
Isabell Maheu, a spokesperson for Environment and Climate Canada said the plan “will highlight science and clean technology innovation for measurement and quantification to inform reporting, policy development, and mitigation measures across the Canadian economy.”
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